Gaps between Ideals and Practice: Lack of Time, Overcrowded Classes and Textbooks
The need for more face-to-face contact hours and small classes, of 15-20 students, is an ongoing issue which has been mentioned in many reports on tertiary LCE in Australia (see Lo Bianco and Gvozdenko (2006) for a comprehensive review of such reports dating back to the 1970s). As noted by Baldwin (2019, p. 181), although language departments are set to benefit from differential funding from the Federal government in support of smaller classes and more teaching hours, “universities are
Towards Activist Tertiary LCE 125 able to adopt their own internal resource allocation methods to allocate these funds to particular faculties or courses”. This unfortunate situation generally results in language programmes not getting their allocated share of federal funding to support appropriate teaching conditions. It is an unresolved issue which impedes greatly on the quality of LCE that ULTRs can possibly deliver, and despite their continuous efforts and dedication to do so.
In our data, both issues (lack of time and class sizes) explain in part ULTRs’ sense of failing to implement their ideal practice, often pushing delving into culture to the background (in particular the less salient aspects of culture), having to focus first on basic language skills, especially so from beginner to intermediate level, as exemplified in Pl, P2 and P7 comments:
Pl, whose PhD research focuses partly on the development of empathy through Japanese learning, notes that it is the lack of time that prevents her to explore this dimension with her students.
... when we have more time or if we had more time, it would be really nice to go back to the older culture’. So my research on empathy. But how young people see empathy is different from how older people see empathy. So what originates - I mean to me it is from a cultural background maybe Wabi-Sabi tea ceremony art part of Japanese culture is important for that empathy because it is a hidden - there are lots of hidden ingredients in expressing this art.
Commenting, as most of our participants did, on the inevitability of teaching language and culture as interconnected, P2 also laments the lack of time to delve more into culture despite the course he teaches having increased its cultural content:
Absolutely, I think they should be taught together. The challenge, which is a practical challenge, is just a lack of time. We have 12 weeks, and you see your students three hours per week. You want to reach your - obviously, your linguistic objectives, language objectives, and go from - if we pick the beginner level, from low French to being able to use a few tenses and - by the end of the semester. There’s already little room to talk about the small amount of culture that we discuss, but if time was not that much of a problem, I think we should start as early as possible. We already - to some extent, what we’re doing here in particular is... absolutely, is already much more culture-focused than what I did in the past. Because culture is now part of assessment, even for the beginner level. We draw the attention of the students to that aspect, and that’s great. I see myself spending much more time discussing culture than I was.
P7 is complaining about big class numbers preventing adequate feedback on spoken skills and also giving little space for cultural learning, falling short of her ideal teaching practice:
I have an ideal approach that’s not necessarily possible in the classroom with big class numbers. I would love to spend more time on the student’s speaking and production, but my classes are too big to give the feedback on those kind of skills, that it doesn’t really work. So yeah, I suppose there’s ideals that I can’t always put into practice. But yeah, that’s about -1 could talk about it if we talk about specific things... I feel like I end up, for practical reasons, having a linguistic focus and throwing in as much little cultural notes as I can to keep them interested.
It is interesting to also note P7’s comment on “throwing in cultural notes to keep students interested” showing that student demand for language proficiency does mean that they lack interest in learning culture, as embedded in language at least.
The use of textbooks is also perceived as limiting. Most participants admit “following the textbook to some extent” (P2) for practical reasons and recognising that “it is a really big issue” (P7) mainly for the lack of relevant cultural content, as illustrated in P7’s, P8’s and P9’s comments:
Yeah. Yep. Having - like we’ve got a reasonable textbook for the first year which has been my main experience at the moment, and the really big demanding course. But yeah, it would be impossible to manage the course without the textbook. I’ve got the previous - the setup from other courses so I’m just basing it all on that. But yeah, sometimes it’s kind of embarrassingly bad. Things like the recordings, there’s a huge amount of listening material, so it’s really great. But as one of my tutors pointed out to me, it’s like the voices they use, they’re meant to be university students and talking about their ages. They clearly sound like middle aged men and women. Things like that. So yeah, I’d really like to expose them to more real or yeah, authentic materials. But that takes a long time to find. I haven’t been able to do that.
P8’s comments reflect the common way ULTRs use textbooks, as a framework to structure their lessons to which they can add “cultural aspects” in an ad hoc manner. She does not comment however on the extent to which this framework pre-determines her course curriculum and appears happy to work around it by raising issues within the themes imposed by the textbook:
We’ve got a textbook now for our second level as well and it’s sort of thematic-based, and I think the way I teach language and culture, it’s probably about raising those issues within those themes....So my approach to doing it is, I think, at the moment we’re following a textbook and it’s dealing with themes, but within those themes, when the opportunities present for some kind of discussion about the cultural aspects, and particularly why you might make linguistic choices and expect linguistic responses from someone based on cultural factors.
P9’s comments reinforce those made above except for the mention of “politics” as an appropriate content, at least in French classes. However, P9 refers to politics as what’s happening today and not what’s happened “a few years ago”, suggesting that for this colleague relevant content does not necessarily include historicity, that is the relevance of history in understanding the present, a topic we revisit further.
For example in French, when I was teaching French we were really following the textbook and textbooks are not always current, kind of a few years behind so - and I think so it’s not reflecting the culture, the French culture today or at least popular culture. I think that it would be more useful to insert current culture that is - like talking about politics for example in the French classes would be interesting today, what’s happening today and not what’s happened a few years ago. But a textbook don’t really allow us...So that’s a bit of a shame too.
P14, however, is satisfied with the use of a textbook simply because “it works”:
Yeah, it’s textbook based. Yeah, Japanese is textbook based, particularly in the lower levels, especially with that many students. We follow - most universities in Australia have Genki, it’s a textbook called Genki, and it’s pretty much understood that that is the textbook that most universities use, because it works.
P14 explains that after the textbook Genki (Banno et al., 2011), for the lower and intermediate levels, another textbook is also used for the advanced courses in Japanese in her programme, implying that the whole Japanese programme at her university is textbook based. P14’s comment that other universities use the same textbook suggests that her programme espouses the normalisation of textbooks as agreed best practice.
As revealed in our data, in their study on the process of language textbook selection at college level in the United States, Angell, DuBravac, and Gonglewski (2008, p. 562) noted ULTRs’ general “ambiguous relationship to textbooks” which most tend to despise and embrace at the same time. There are undoubtedly advantages in using a textbook as they provide structure, a syllabus and learning resources, as well as a sequence of learning. However, textbooks conceived by commercial developers also determine the main pedagogical orientation and content of a language course (Chapelle, 2016; Risager, 2018). Arguably, they discharge ULTRs of any responsibility to cast their own vision for a tertiary LCE curriculum. This is an understandable temptation in current university environment where ULTRs, as well as other academics, are overburdened with administrative tasks, high teaching loads and pressure to research and publish which leave very little time for any substantial language programme curriculum review. This is our main concern in calling for a review of tertiary LCE curriculum which embraces criticality, interculturality and activism. This review must entail a professional discussion seldom heard in the field, on the choice and selection of textbooks that would match the vision ULTRs (and tertiary education at large) endorses for tertiary LCE. This vision could include disposing of textbooks altogether, developing alternative teaching materials tailored to enable critical language/culture learning for both global and local needs, a future research agenda in itself. This in turn implies first seizing the LCE space ULTRs occupy on ideological grounds, leading in time to radical changes in practice.